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Vol. XXXI No. 9, August 16-31, 2021

Tough task: State faces multiple barriers in covid-19 vaccination drive, puts its best efforts forward

by Our Special Correspondent

Tamil Nadu is seeing an increase in fresh Covid-19 cases, with most districts including Chennai reporting a marginal spike in daily positive numbers. The TN Health Minister Ma. Subramanian explained the trend in a quote to India Today on July 30th — “The number of new Covid-19 cases in Chennai has been increasing in the last three days because the number of RT-PCR tests has increased. Chennai reported 122 cases on Monday, 139 on Tuesday and 164 on Wednesday. More than 24,000 RT-PCR tests were done in the district of Tamil Nadu which is the total in certain states (sic).”

That the State has ramped up testing for Covid-19 is a good sign. It is a necessary step, given that covid numbers are seeing a worrying surge in the neighbouring state of Kerala. In fact, passengers entering Tamil Nadu from Kerala are mandated by the State to carry a negative RT-PCR report as well as a certificate confirming that they’ve had both doses of the vaccination. Those without the required documentation are subjected to testing at the Chennai Central railway station; they are quarantined on the station premises until they receive a negative report. But testing is just one arm of the solution. To fight the pandemic effectively, testing must be accompanied by steady vaccination rates that help the population build resistance to the virus. According to data from the CoWin website, TN has administered 2,59,14,903 doses so far, out of which 42,86,779 are attributed to Chennai (roughly amounting to a little over 21 per cent of its population). However, a seamless vaccination drive is proving to be a tough task; multiple barriers are preventing the State from doing a good job.

For one, vaccine hesitancy continues to be a problem, even though the situation has improved from the early days of the vaccine introduction. In July, the State conducted a survey across Tamil Nadu led by the respective deputy directors of health services in each area. In Chennai, the study was conducted by community medicine postgraduate students of Madras Medical College, with support from the GCC. The survey found that 16.9 per cent of those in the 18-44 age group were reluctant to get vaccinated; the numbers stood at 18.2 per cent and 27.6 per cent for those in the 45-59 and 60+ age groups respectively. Almost a quarter surveyed were doubtful of the usefulness of getting vaccinated. Vaccine hesitancy seems to be propped up by the fear of the unknown as well as vaccine accessibility – those surveyed said that fear of injections, fear of post-vaccine complications, the unwillingness to wait in long queues and the lack of a companion were a few reasons why they were unsure of getting the jab.

The State has done an arguably good job in helping its people break these barriers. Apart from an ongoing integrated public awareness campaign (which underlines the need for social distancing, hygiene measures and vaccination), the administration is putting considerable effort towards prioritizing vaccination for at-risk and vulnerable social groups; for instance, the Chennai Corporation swiftly launched a home-vaccination campaign for the elderly and specially-abled as early as May. Tamil Nadu is, in fact, the first Indian state to offer its people free covid-19 vaccinations at private hospitals, financed by reserves built up of CSR funds from various companies. It is an effective distribution strategy that experts are recommending Kerala – and other states – to emulate.

The second, bigger problem is the vaccine shortage – one unfortunately, which the State has relatively lesser autonomy to solve. Last month, the administration’s vaccination drive hit a snag when a considerable number of people had to return home without taking the jabs, even though they had braved heavy showers to reach the vaccination centers. Ground reports suggest that many are yet to receive their second vaccine dose due to a lack of availability, whether Covaxin or Covishield. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, TN Chief Minister MK Stalin said that the number of vaccine doses provided to the state accounted for only 302 persons per thousand eligible population – a number that he says is much lower compared to vaccine availability in comparable states such as Gujarat, Karnataka and Rajasthan.

Efforts lobbying for more vaccines seem to have borne fruit – the Center, which had initially allotted 79 lakh vaccines for the month of August, has reportedly approved an additional 19 lakh vaccines for the State. In more good news, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) has given the nod for Christian Medical College, Vellore to conduct a clinical trial to evaluate if a mixed vaccine combination can be effective against the current policy of two doses of the same vaccine. This is a notable step; if the study reports favourable results, logistical planning will hopefully become easier with the ability to crossover vaccine brands in the face of uncertain supply.

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